You can only have one identity

I’m so jealous.

danah boyd wrote about something I’ve been meaning to write about for ages now. That can’t help but sound like so many sour grapes, but I can’t deny that I’ve scheduled a wee ass kicking for myself once I’ve finished making this post. Something about making hay and shining suns and such…

Anyway, in response to the exploding conversation about web -nymity (what kind of names are we going to allow? Real ones? Pseudo ones? Full frontal anon?), boyd writes many good things, including this bit of brilliance:

There is no universal context, no matter how many times geeks want to tell you that you can be one person to everyone at every point. But just because people are doing what it takes to be appropriate in different contexts, to protect their safety, and to make certain that they are not judged out of context, doesn’t mean that everyone is a huckster. Rather, people are responsibly and reasonably responding to the structural conditions of these new media. And there’s nothing acceptable about those who are most privileged and powerful telling those who aren’t that it’s OK for their safety to be undermined. And you don’t guarantee safety by stopping people from using pseudonyms, but you do undermine people’s safety by doing so.

“no universal context”, which is to say that when it comes to internet identity, context matters just as much as it does when we’re participating in any rhetorical activity. And just as a rhetor establishes and cultivates ethos by being sensitive to context, so must those shaping spaces where people gather be sensitive to the potentially explosive or destructive intersections of online and offline spaces.

I’ve spent the last year exploring this topic with my students, and the one thing that’s been clearest to them is that there’s a utility–and I’d claim it as social–to anonymity on the web. The “radical transparency” that sites like Facebook and Google Plus seek to establish shines too much light into the lives we’ve become comfortable living online; boyd points to the long-accepted–and perhaps even encouraged–tradition of pseudonymity and handles on the web. They don’t start there, though. There’s something seductive about the transparency argument; it’s just about keeping it real, simplifying things. It never occurs to them to consider the positive reasons why someone might want to be unknown–the desire for pseudo- or anonymity is always negatively construed at the start. Once we start looking around, though, and see the people we don’t usually see (the marginalized, as it were), real names start to look very dangerous, and the real conversation can begin.

So thanks to danah boyd for saying it and reminding me that I had something to say too.

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